The Filatov Fiasco

Well, I guess we all received the answer to the question of whether Nikita Filatov was going to log more Time On Ice (TOI).

Oh, there will be ice time logged, but it won’t be here in Columbus. Heck, it won’t be in North America, in the National Hockey League.

I don’t know about you, but after something this stunning occurs, my mind tends to reel – I need a little time to process what just happened. In a startling development, Nikita Filatov opted to leave the Columbus Blue Jackets to return to his native Russia and play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for CSKA Moscow, 19 games into his rookie campaign.

Wait, wasn’t this the same player who was rated the No. 2 prospect in the draft, behind Steven Stamkos by the International Scouting Service (ISS)? Wasn’t it also the same player who was rated the top prospect in all of hockey by every major publication – Hockey’s Future, The Hockey News, et al? Wasn’t this also the same player who coach Ken Hitchcock compared to a young Pavel Bure?

It just didn’t work out, and he’s leaving, under a one-year “loan agreement” (what, are we buying a house?), to “develop his game” and will return for training camp?

Something stinks here, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Spin this “return” though you may, but, I’m not buying it. There are two chances he returns: no chance and no chance.

It’s safe to say that there are three, and only three, parties to this catastrophe: Nikita Filatov, Hitchcock and GM Scott Howson. So, let me address each party: where they errored and where they’re coming from – on the later, where they have a valid defense/position.

Nikita Filatov’s talent? Undeniable; Baggage/Character Issues? Undeniable. His perception of walking in reputation/upside, alone, and not earning his way into the NHL and on one of the first lines, won’t cut it, especially in playing for a future Hall of Fame coach – one who is known for being “demanding” on players, particularly young players. In an interview, Filatov acknowledged that he was considering leaving the Blue Jackets after the fourth game of the season, the first game in which he was benched – in NHL jargon, healthy scratched.

Hey, let’s not quit too soon, eh? And, it leads to those character issues/questions: Was he really working on those aspects of the game that are necessary for success in the NHL? Rick Nash changed his game, as did prior Hitch stalwarts Mike Modano, Brett Hull and Eric Lindross. While each may not have liked the tough love and being thrust into doing the dirty work, each transformed themselves from being one-dimensional to being elite, two-way, multi-dimensional stars.

I also recall Filatov making a somewhat snide inference regarding the upside he has against Steven Stamkos, while Stamkos was going through the growing pains of full-time duty in the NHL last season. Well, in Stamkos’ case, while he indeed struggled a bit, he also worked to become as complete a player as he could. And during the later part of the season and into this season, he’s elevated his game to being one of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s best, most complete, players.

So right now, given a choice of Stamkos’ NHL prospects and Filatov’s, does anyone want to take on that bet as to who will be the better professional? I didn’t think so.

However, is he solely to blame for this mess? Not entirely.

Filatov did put in his time in the AHL last year. He also was understanding and patient in being assigned to the AHL for the remainder of the season, a few games after he scored his hat trick against the Minnesota Wild. Some wondered if he should have stayed with the parent club, that it was a move based on mitigating the shortening of his initial option (UFA) year. He quietly watched the double standard of a long leash for the veteran players, even some younger players, and an extremely short leash for himself. He’s told, and knows, that he has world-class talent, yet he sees all those players drafted before him logging significant, first line/pairing shifts in the NHL. He sees veterans who were essentially turnover machines, doing so, without any repercussions, as he was subject to. He’s told that he’s in “survival mode” essentially wrecking any confidence that he had and leading him to try not make a mistake.

Much like footabll coaches Marty Schotenheimer and John Cooper in football, when you try not to make a mistake, you make several mistakes. Finally, and not to make an excuse, the last I looked, Filatov’s an 18-year old, being asked to come to another part of the world, alone. Think that might be a life-altering change?

Scott Howson – This one really hurts to even infer or question him. During his tenure, you’d be hard-pressed to find even the slightest blemish, thus, the phrase, “In Howson we trust.” On this draft move, however, enter blemish.

Since the discontinuation of the transfer agreements between the NHL and Russian players, two seasons ago, has made NHL GMs quite apprehensive towards possibly wasting a draft pick on someone who’s essentially a flight risk. Case in point: Maxim Mayorov, a consensus 10th-15th overall draft pick, being drafted by the Blue Jackets in the fourth round, in the 2007 entry draft. If you need further evidence, just ask the Nashville Preds of their comfort level in drafting Russian players, after Alexander Radulov left, two seasons ago, never to return to the NHL and the Preds. Now that Filatov has returned to Russia, and is now playing in the KHL – not a league I’d put much faith in honoring the loan agreement – the Blue Jackets have lost their No. 1 pick for nothing in return.

In Howson’s defense however, he being an extremely bright, methodical person, he did his due diligence, interviewing him several times, in the scouting/draft process.

All signs seemed ‘a go’. Filatov wasn’t under any contract with any Russian league or other impeding promulgating bodies. Filatov expressed a lifelong desire to play in the NHL, he learned English at a relatively young age; basically, he said and did all the right things. There was also the opposing risk that, had they not drafted Filatov with the No. 6, overall, pick, that the drop-off in talent was quite large.

I will also say that Scott Howson never deflects blame, much unlike his predecessor, Doug MacLean. He was aware of the risks.

Ken Hitchcock – Much like my previous article, in which I admitted to a Steve Mason vanity plate – before that, I possessed a Hitchcock vanity plate – being an ardent follower of his coaching greatness, and a great fan of his ‘old time hockey’ style. To this end, however, much as I hate to admit it, the most blame in this mess, should be placed on him.

Hitchcock does not get off, scott-free during the period in which Filatov was lucky to draw seven minutes of TOI, while Kristain Huselius was unscathed, continuing to draw major minutes of TOI on the first line.

Did Hitch really give Filatov any chance to succeed? That his leash wasn’t unfairly short, particularly towards him, versus the veterans? Does the tough love approach really work for everyone, particularly for someone so young, and for someone you’ve compared to Pavel Bure? Any chance you might have went a bit overboard in trying to prove a point? Any chance that you might have considered the approach you used towards Nikolai Zherdev, at the beginning of his last season in Columbus?

Even in comparing the handling of last season’s rookies – Derrick Brassard and Jake Voracek – it didn’t appear they were subjected to the same level of tough love. Then again, that’s a by-product of an improved organization. Hitchcock didn’t have the same level of talent, at this time, last season. Once again however, there was enough evidence of veterans who played far worse, and few, if any, repercussions were imposed upon those who were not adhering to Hitchcock’s disciplined system.

In defense of Hitch, his results speak louder than I or any armchair QB could even dream of. He’s not in the coddling or patience business, he’s in the winning championships business. He is going to play (both) the players he thinks gives him the best chance to win, those players who sacrifice their individual talents for those of the team, and those who adhere and follow his system. He lives in the day to day, that approach was attempted during the prior regime, and it was a cataclysmic failure. It’s about the team and not individuals.

This team is a rising power in the NHL – he need no further proof than the team’s 11-6-2 record and its first-ever playoff appearance – you fail to perform? There’s plenty of organizational depth and players who will do all the things necessary to produce victories and ultimately, Stanley Cup championships. Oh, and not that it matters to the argument, but, Hitch is a sure fire Hall of Fame coach.

Hitch has a legacy and a track record second to none. He has demonstrated, if you follow his methods and system, players do transform their careers, for the better; teams do succeed (at the Junior level, the NHL level or the Olympic/International Level). Hitch has the hardware to prove it and the game to back it up.

The end result of all of this is Filatov is KHL-bound on a “one year loan.” If you say so…and last year, Filatov was called up from the AHL to “experience” the NHL playoffs. Yeah, I’ll drink the Kool Aid.

I sure hope I’m proven wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time for those of you scoring, at home. But, Filatov might have played his last game as a Jacket.

In a follow up article, I will address what options the Blue Jacket organization, particularly Howson, have to possibly recoup this potential lost investment. In the meantime, the work goes on. Next objective? Defeating the Dallas Stars and working towards a successful, 5-game road trip.

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  1. The Filatov Fiasco, Part Two: Now What? | INSIDE HOCKEY - December 18, 2010

    [...] the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, I wrote an article that assessed Nikita Filatov’s departure from the Columbus Blue Jackets only 19 games into the [...]